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Searching for a missing bit of law

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

So now we know, from the Inquirer and the Notebook, that the School District– involuntarily, to be sure – spends $4.56 million per year on salaries and benefits for 80 employees of the Bureau of Revision of Taxes. Which made me wonder: where’s the law that gives the District the authority to spend all that money on these folks?

A basic (and common-sense) principle of Pennsylvania school law is that school districts’ powers are not unlimited. Instead, the cases say, districts can do only those things that the law says, in so many words or by “necessary implication,” that they can do.

So, if it were revealed that the District was paying the salaries of (to pick a few possibilities from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles) 80 Baby-Stroller Rental Clerks, or 80 Rug Inspectors, or 80 Theatrical Variety Agents or Jugglers, most people would see a problem. And they’d be right, even if the District were to point out that there are great opportunities in the rug-inspecting business, or that jugglers are in desperate need of employment. The law just doesn’t give the District the authority to pay people to do things unrelated to educating children.

But, the Inquirer reports, the official line has been that these BRT employees are doing something related to educating children: they’re collecting taxes that help support the schools. One problem with this is that, as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court noted 30 years ago in Danson v. Casey, the School District has no power to levy (or collect) taxes, even for educational purposes, except to the extent that City Council authorizes it to do so.

If City Council were to authorize the District to levy real estate taxes, therefore, Council could presumably also authorize – or even require – the District to collect (and pay people to collect) those taxes. But, so far as I know, Council has not empowered the District to get into the real-estate-tax-levying business. So how can the District legally pay people to do the work involved in carrying out that business?

Incidentally, as the Inquirer also reported, the District doesn’t actually hire or supervise the BRT employees whose salaries it’s paying – which means that my rug-inspector analogy is a little off. The proper comparison would be to a situation in which the District was paying the salaries of 80 rug inspectors hired and managed by the Philadelphia Bureau of Rug Inspections. Even more bizarre!

Maybe I’m wrong about this – it’s not my field. But until someone tells us what law authorizes this arrangement, I’m going with Mayor Nutter’s view, which is that “the only people who should be on the School District payroll should be involved in educating children.” Except that I would add that perhaps those are also the only people who can legally be on the District’s payroll.